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When a movie like “The Lone Ranger” comes along, you wonder if it will live up to the hype. It does, mostly. Wearing my hats as historian, western movie buff and business journalist, let me tell you why.
First, let’s talk about Tonto’s headpiece. The crow perched on his head may seem like a Hollywood take on Native dress. New Mexico’s tribes weren’t given to elaborate headdresses, but tribes of the Southern Plains were. In this movie, the setting is Texas, and Tonto is Comanche.
Listen to an eye-witness account of an attack by Comanches and their allies on a Spanish mission in 1758: “Besides the paint on their faces, red and black, they were adorned with the pelts and tails of wild beasts, wrapped around them or hanging down from their heads, as well as deer horns. Some were disguised as various kinds of animals, and some wore feather headdresses...”
This quote is from my new book, “I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches.” In the research I learned more than I thought possible about Texas history and the Apaches’ enemies, especially Comanches.
Making allowances for a fictional narrative in a Hollywood blockbuster, I found the themes and a lot of details (no spoilers here) historically consistent: Tonto, as a warrior, admires a man he considers a great warrior. Indian people are blamed for the actions of non-Indian outlaws, and they’re pushed out of the way when anything of value is found. The Chinese are treated horribly. Railroad barons are ruthless. The army sees its responsibility as protecting settlers, merchants and railroads and not keeping white interlopers from Indian lands.
As a Western movie buff, I can’t work up much indignation about Johnny Depp playing Tonto because Westerns have come a long, long way. First, white men in brown makeup and bad wigs played the Indian roles. Next, Italians, Hispanics and anybody else with a swarthy complexion played Indians. Then we began seeing Native people playing these roles. Finally, we have Native actors.
So, while it might have been interesting to see how an actor like Wes Studi (Cherokee) would play Tonto, my big question was how Depp would play the famous sidekick. The answer is: Very well. While paying tribute to Jay Silverheels, the original Tonto, with his depth of voice and deliberate speech, Depp’s Tonto isn’t a sidekick at all, but an independent, cheeky Tonto. And, as he always does, Depp adds his own dash of humor.
The latter is important. Audiences are used to the serious Jay Silverheels or the silent red man stereotype, but Native people like a laugh as well as anyone, and there are a lot of laughs in this movie.
The new Tonto has taken some criticism for his broken English. In the 1800s, Comanches, Apaches and other southern tribes spoke good Spanish, but few spoke English. And Tonto’s English rises above the old “heap big” parlance. Another reviewer quibbles about Tonto saying, “Stupid white man,” although I heard no complaining about the Lone Ranger calling Tonto a savage. Repeatedly.
A reviewer takes issue with the piled-on special effects, and I’m inclined to agree. On the other hand, it’s fun to watch, and we go to the movies to be entertained. Before “The Lone Ranger” takes you on a final wild ride, it tells a story, delivers a message, and provides a visual feast. Director Gore Verbinski doffs his cowboy hat to storied Western creator John Ford, who loved Monument Valley, but he also shows off New Mexico.
Disney is spending zillions to promote the picture, and millions will see it. The state Tourism Department is piggybacking on Disney’s promotion, its own budget an eye dropper by comparison. We can’t buy this kind of exposure at any price.